Sermon: Reading Scripture as Epiphany
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Nehemiah 8.1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; I Corinthians 12.12-31a; Luke 4.14-21
Thus far we have looked at three epiphanies: the visit of the Magi, Jesus’ baptism accompanied by a voice from heaven, and the miracle of turning water into wine. Today we consider epiphany which comes through reading scripture.
First, we have the story of Ezra reading from God’s Law, the Torah. In 586 BC the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem: they took everyone who was anyone into captivity to eliminate any prospects of revolt. Approximately 50 years later, the Babylonians were conquered by Cyrus the Great, the King of Persia. Cyrus issued a decree permitting the Babylonian captives to return to Jerusalem. The returning exiles found Jerusalem in devastation. They set about rebuilding Jerusalem, the Temple, and the city walls. Upon completion of the city wall, they gathered in the square before the Water Gate. Ezra, the priest and scribe, was told to bring the Law of Moses. Ezra stood on a raised wooden platform and from there he read the Law from morning until midday. When Ezra opened the book of the Law to read, everyone stood.
The account says they read from the book “with interpretation.” Verse seven, which was omitted from our reading, names several Levites who assisted in interpreting the law for the people’s understanding. When they heard and understood the Law, the people wept; they were aware of what had been lost and of their transgressions. But Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites advised the people: “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep. . . Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8.9b, 10b; NRSV).
Our reading ends rather abruptly here – perhaps you are wondering what happened next. The text tells us the Levites calmed the people by saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved” (Nehemiah 8.11; NRSV). The people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions to those who had nothing, and they set about rejoicing for they had heard the words of the Law and received understanding. Their weeping turned to rejoicing as they realized God took joy in their return and their newfound understanding of the Law.
The second epiphany from scripture is set forth in our reading from Luke, who begins by noting, “Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee” (Luke 4.14a; NRSV). The temptation in the wilderness precedes Luke’s account of Jesus’ teaching in the synagogues of Galilee and his visit to Nazareth, his home town. From Luke’s account, we can conclude that Jesus was a popular and well-respected teacher, for Luke tells us Jesus “was praised by everyone” (4.15; NRSV). This accords with Matthew’s account of Jesus’ teaching, for following the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew tells us “Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (7.28-29; NRSV).
When Jesus stood up to read in the synagogue, he was handed the Isaiah scroll. Jesus turned to the place where it was written and read, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (Isaiah 61.1-2a; NRSV). While I have previously mentioned this, it bears repeating: Jesus did not include the phrase, “and [to proclaim] the day of vengeance of our God” (Isaiah 61.2b; NRSV). Vengeance had no place in Jesus’ mission. Upon finishing this passage, Jesus rolled up the scroll, handed it to the attendant, then sat down as was the custom for rabbinic exposition of the scripture. Luke tells us, “The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him” (Luke 4.20; NRSV). Here was another temptation. We like to be the center of attention. Jesus was popular; he could have taken the safe route by waxing eloquent about Isaiah’s messianic message and the goodness of God that was to come at some future point in time. He could have encouraged the people to wait patiently upon the Lord. Had he done so, people would have found comfort, been encouraged, and told him how much they enjoyed his message.
Jesus did not follow the safe route, for our reading closes with these words: “Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’” (Luke 4.21; NRSV). What? What is the meaning of this? Sorry, but you will have to come back next week for the remainder of the story.
We want to look more closely at this epiphany. Here Jesus revealed his mission – its shape, emphasis, and direction. The words of the prophet Isaiah were being fulfilled.
It strikes me that we can gain a few insights from these two instances of reading scripture. First, although the Spirit was upon Jesus following his temptation in the desert, Jesus continued to experience temptation. With all eyes on Jesus, Satan would have had Jesus become a great rabbi. Satan would have had Jesus conduct business as normal. Once again, Jesus said, “No! Get thee behind me.” Jesus knew the time of salvation was (and is) now; the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Do we suffer a similar temptation when things are going well? Are we willing to listen to God’s call and to respond with obedience?
Second, when we read scripture, either individually, or corporately in the liturgy of the word, we are very likely to encounter passages which cause some weeping. We may recognize our failures, our shortcomings, and our utter reliance on the grace of God. But as Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites noted, our weeping should turn to rejoicing as we realize the Spirit of God is working in our hearts and minds. God is at work, slowly transforming and conforming us into the image of God as intended. As the book of Ecclesiastes reminds us, there “is a time to weep, and a time to laugh” (3.4; NRSV). Reading scripture awakens us to new insights and new life in Christ.
Third, if you have read scripture for any length of time, you have probably experienced reading a passage you have previously read numerous times, yet something new and striking emerges – an epiphany, a sudden new insight. It may be as if we are reading the passage for the first time, for we read it with new eyes. These moments are exciting and delightful – they reveal that the Word of God is living and working within our lives. Why do we experience such moments of insight? I suspect it is because considerable growth and understanding have occurred since you last read the passage: you may have experienced something that brings a certain freshness to God’s Word. There is a very real sense in which we read the passage with new eyes, as if for the first time, for, in many ways, we are not the same person who read the passage before.
We are called to read, study, and understand God’s word. If you would experience epiphanies -- illuminating discoveries, realizations, or disclosures, read scripture – listen to the Word speak to you. To assist, I recommend using the Daily Office in the Book of Common Prayer or Forward Day by Day.